Joseph Smith/Alleged false prophecies/The prophetic test in Deuteronomy 18
Using Deuteronomy 18 as a "prophetic test"
|Joseph Smith, Jr.|
Questions and Answers
Question: Does Joseph Smith fail the "prophetic test" found in Deuteronomy 18?
Deuteronomy 18 states that if a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord that something will happen, and then it does not happen, that the prophet has spoken "presumptuously"
Evangelicals point to Deuteronomy 18:20-22 as a 'test' for a true prophet:
20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?
22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
It is claimed that Joseph Smith made failed prophecies, and as such must be a "false prophet." When critics charge Joseph Smith with uttering a "false prophecy" they are generally making one or more errors:
- they rely on an inaccurate account of what Joseph actually wrote or said, or they misrepresent Joseph's words;
- they ignore or remain unaware of circumstances which fulfilled the prophecy;
- they ignore or deny the clear scriptural principle [Jeremiah 18:7-10] that prophecy is contingent upon the choices of mortals;
Many LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Nathan, an angel of God, and Jonah, also condemn the Old Testament as a fraud
Many LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Nathan, an angel of God, and Jonah, also condemn the Old Testament as a fraud. No reasonable or biblical application of Deuteronomy 18 condemns Joseph Smith. Like the prophets of the Bible, Joseph's prophetic claims cannot be tested by looking for a failure in "fore-telling"—we must, as with the biblical prophets, decide if Joseph "knew God in the immediacy of experience," by weighing "the moral and religious content" of his message as he "challeng[es] his hearers to respond to the divine standards of spirituality through acts of cleansing and renewal of life," which may only be ultimately judged by the source of prophecy—God himself. Every prophet is an invitation to enter into a "prophetic" relationship with God for ourselves, to communicate with him, and obtain the testimony of Jesus for ourselves.
Confusion on this point arises from one or more errors:
- prophecy may be fulfilled in ways or at times that the hearers do not expect;
- most prophecies are contingent, even if this is not made explicit when the prophecy is given—that is, the free agent choices of mortals can impact whether a given prophecy comes to pass
- sectarian critics may apply a standard to modern LDS prophets whom they reject that they do not apply to biblical prophets. This double standard condemns Joseph unfairly.
Prophecy may be fulfilled in ways or at times that the hearers do not expect
Deuteronomy doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet. James L. Mays, editor of Harper's Bible Commentary writes:
- Prophecy in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a prophet's overall performance.
The problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways or at times much later than anticipated by the hearers. As one conservative Bible commentator noted:
- As far as external considerations were involved, therefore, there would appear to have been [in Old Testament times] virtually no means of differentiating the true from the false prophet....While the popular view current in the seventh century B.C. distinguished a true prophet from a false one on the basis of whether their predictions were fulfilled or not, this attitude merely constituted an inversion of the situation as it ultimately emerged, and not an absolute criterion of truth or falsity as such. As Albright has pointed out, the fulfilment of prophecies was only one important element in the validation of a genuine prophet, and in some instances was not even considered to be an essential ingredient, as illustrated by the apparent failure of the utterances of Haggai [Haggai 2:21] against the Persian empire.R.K. Harrsion, Introduction to the Old Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969); reprint edition by (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 755–756.
Most prophecies are contingent, even if this is not made explicit when the prophecy is given
The Bible contains many examples of God choosing to reverse or revoke certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in Jeremiah:
- 7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
- 8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
- 9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
- 10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.Jeremiah 18:7-10
This principle is also illustrated in 1Sam 2:30 where, because of the wickedness of the priests, the Lord revokes his promise that the house of Aaron will forever serve him:
- 30 Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
Sectarian critics may apply a standard to modern LDS prophets whom they reject that they do not apply to biblical prophets
Many Bible prophets would not survive the critics' hostile application of Deuteronomy 18 as Jewish and Christian commentators have long realized. The reading which the critics wish to apply to modern day prophets does not match how scholars of Judaism have understood Deuteronomy in its Old Testament context.
Wrote one author:
- "The true prophet, as intercessor, was ready to risk a confrontation with God, in contrast to his counterpart, the false prophet. The problem of distinguishing between them was indeed perplexing, as shown by two separate passages in Deuteronomy...The answer given is that if the 'oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet uttered it presumptuously.' This, however, cannot serve as an infallible criterion, because there are several occasions when an oracle delivered by a true prophet did not materialize even in his own lifetime. Such unfulfilled prophecies include Jeremiah's prediction of the ignominious fate of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:19), which was belied by 2 Kings 24:6, and Ezekiel's foretelling the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 26:7-21), which was later admitted to have failed but was to be compensated by the Babylonian king's attack on Egypt (Ezekiel 29:17-20)"
We will see examples in the next section of biblical prophets who would be labeled as "false prophets" if the critics were consistent in their application of Deuteronomy.
The Jewish Study Bible observed:
- Having established an Israelite model of prophecy, the law provides two criteria to distinguish true from false prophets. The first is that the prophet should speak exclusively on behalf of God, and report only God's words. Breach of that rule is a capital offense (Jeremiah 28:12-17.) The second criterion makes the fulfillment of a prophet's oracle the measure of its truth. That approach attempts to solve a critical problem: If two prophets each claim to speak on behalf of God yet make mutually exclusive claims- (1 Kings 22:6 versus 1 King 22:17; Jeremiah 27:8 versus Jeremiah 28:2)- how may one decide which prophet speaks the truth?
- The solution offered is not free of difficulty. If a false prophet is distinguished by the failure of his oracle to come true, then making a decision in the present about which prophet to obey is impossible. Nor can this criterion easily be reconciled with Deuteronomy 13:3, which concedes that the oracles of false prophets might come true. Finally, the prophets frequently threatened judgment, hoping to bring about repentance (Jeremiah 7:, Jeremiah 26:1-6). If the prophet succeeds and the people repent and thereby avert doom (Jonah 3-4:), one would assume the prophet to be authentic, since he has accomplished God's goal of repentance. Yet according to thee criteria here (but contrast Jeremiah 28:9), the prophet who accomplished repentance is nonetheless a false prophet, since the judgment oracle that was proclaimed remains unfulfilled. These texts, with their questions and differences of opinion on such issues, reflect the vigorous debate that took place in Israel about prophecy."
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Harrison, 755.
- This wiki article was originally based on Jeff Lindsay, "If any prophecy of a so-called prophet proves to be wrong, shouldn't we reject him? Isn't that the standard of Deut. 18:22?," off-site Due to the nature of a wiki project, the text may have been modified, edited, and had additions made.
- James L. Mays (editor), Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 226.
- Shalom M. Paul, "Prophecy and Prophets" a supplemental essay in Etz Hayim, a Torah/Commentary published by the Jewish Publication Society, 1411, (emphasis added).
- Jewish Study Bible (published by the Jewish Publication Society), commentary on Deu. 18:20-23.